Bargain hunters gravitate to the untrammeled South Coast--and there they find a more authentic, less crowded, more rewarding vacation
It's a tiny crowd that assembles on the rocky outcrop between bays--two young Peace Corps volunteers down from the mountains for the weekend, a middle-aged American couple who've been strolling arm in arm along the beach, and a Jamaican man who hiked down the hill from his villa. Chitchat halts as the sun sinks and clouds turn pyrotechnic on the horizon. So ends another perfect, indolent day on Jamaica's South Coast.
There's more sun for the money on "the other side of the island," as Jamaicans call the 100-mile stretch from Savannah-la-Mar to Milk River. Nestled in the rain shadow of the country's central mountain range, the southwest corner of the island has a dry climate, uncrowded beaches, towering waterfalls, mysterious rivers-and some of the best food in the country. What it doesn't have are big resorts.
Jamaica-bound Americans have long gravitated to resort developments in Montego Bay and Ocho Rios on the north side of the island, and Negril on the west, where they get a generic, sequestered experience of warm weather, a beach, and umbrella-garnished rum drinks. But when the already laid-back Jamaicans want to unwind, they choose the South Coast for bargain rates on an unspoiled Caribbean shore where locals treat you like family. Almost every casual conversation leads to the suggestion that you look up a relative in the States. Stop at the same coffee shop or restaurant three days in a row, and you'll get a big hug good-bye when you have to go home. Best of all, rooms on the beach start at $30 and you can feast on freshly caught fish for $6 or less.
SuperClubs it ain't.
Picking a base
The South Coast sweeps through open sugarcane fields in the west to a wetlands wilderness at the midpoint. But the best place to base your visit is east of Black River, where the coastline is scalloped with small bays. The heart of this beach country is the four-mile stretch of fishing coves along Calabash, Frenchman's, and Billy's Bays known as Treasure Beach, more a region than a village.
Not only do the soft, brown sand beaches have great swimming, body-surfing, and snorkeling, Treasure Beach is also ideally situated for exploring the villages and backcountry of this rural side of Jamaica. Calabash and Frenchman's Bays bustle with tiny restaurants and bars, and all four miles of the shore are dotted with villas, small hotels, and guesthouses.
The premier bargain lodging on Frenchman's Bay-only a garden gate separates the property from the beach-is Golden Sands Guest House (876/965-0167, www.geocities.com/goldensandsguesthouse). Three single-story buildings hold 24 spartan but immaculate rooms, each fitted with an overhead fan, two twin beds, a dresser, and a bathroom with cold (actually cool) water. Simple white bed linens and towels are provided. Popular with the backpacking crowd, the shared kitchens let you economize by preparing your own meals. The monkish rooms are offset by flowering grounds, the sound of surf a few yards away, and a pleasant outdoor bar. Rooms for two are $30 per night. The sole one-bedroom cottage with air-conditioning and TV costs $60.
The modern, family-run Sunset Resort Villa (800/786-8452, 876/965-0143, www.sunsetresort.com) offers many creature comforts on a budget. The crisply maintained, intimate complex of 12 air-conditioned rooms enjoys spectacular sunset views over the courtyard pool or from the outdoor tables of its accomplished, upscale restaurant (full meal, about $25). Room decor leans toward rich colors and floral prints, and most rooms have king- or queen-size beds with soft linens, high-grade mattresses, and abundant towels. Rooms for two start at $80 a night without breakfast.
With 32 air-conditioned rooms, Treasure Beach Hotel (800/526-2422, 876/965-0110, www.treasurebeachjamaica.com) is both the area's largest lodging and a popular budget honeymoon getaway, especially for Jamaicans. Founded in the 1930s as a retreat for asthmatics, Treasure Beach Hotel, which overlooks the sea, has installed two large pools and a hot tub, and it has cultivated a wooded, tropical-garden landscape for guests who like to leave the rest of the world behind. The Frenchman's Bay beach is steps away. Published rates start at $99 to $110 for two in a garden-view room; ask about discounts for multinight stays.
All the beaches of Treasure Beach are public, but they're hardly crowded. The coastline consists of long, sandy crescents punctuated by rocky outcrops. Moderate waves crest high enough for good bodysurfing, and coral reefs about 100 yards offshore make for colorful snorkeling. These are working beaches, and one corner of each cove is usually reserved for the fleet of 30-foot open fishing boats bobbing at the low-tide line with their tethers leading up the beach.
There are no swim-up bars on Treasure Beach, but there are plenty of thatched-roof huts along the shore where you can order an icy Red Stripe and escape the sun under a palm tree. Some of the best dining is close enough to the water to feel the splash of the surf. Winsome's On the Beach (Frenchman's Beach, no phone) sets a high standard for casual cuisine with inventive twists on Jamaican classics such as fish soup for $1.80, callaloo (similar to spinach) fritters for $2, and chicken adobe (coconut milk-tomato-ginger sauce) or grilled kingfish in escovitch (pickled onions, peppers, and carrots), each only $6. Diners Delite (Treasure Beach Rd., no phone) serves country-style dishes, including saltfish and okra ($2.60), braised oxtail ($4.60), and chicken stew ($3.40). If you have a hankering for Jamaican jerk barbecue ($5.60 to $8), Chef Kit at Wild Onion (off Treasure Beach Rd., no phone) fires up the outdoor pits nightly, with live music on the weekends.
Fish Fry and a Soak The dining and beachside social scene at Little Ochi (876/965-4450) lures even many Treasure Beach locals into driving an hour east to the fishing village of Alligator Pond. Select your own fish (priced by weight), then settle into a thatched hut or an old fishing boat on the beach. Dinner ($10 to $12) will be delivered to you, along with bammy (cassava bread), "festival" (cornmeal cake), and rice and peas.
It's another 40 minutes east along the narrow coastal road to Alligator Hole, a broad pool in a river inhabited by three female manatees. You're most likely to see them in the afternoon when they come to feed at this idyllic spot. The mineral baths at Milk River Spa (Clarendon, 876/902-6902), 15 minutes farther east, were discovered in 1794. Like more famous spas (Bath, England, or Karlovy Vary/Karlsbad, Czech Republic, for example), Milk River touts the powers of its naturally radioactive waters, claiming that they cure "gout, rheumatism, neuralgia, sciatica, lumbago, nerve complaints generally, and liver disorders." In any event, a relaxing 15-minute soak in a private chamber costs $2, and you can also pamper yourself with a $4 manicure or a $24 full-body massage.
On the way back to Treasure Beach, Lover's Leap, south of Southfield, marks the spot where a slave couple jumped to their deaths in 1747 rather than be separated from each other. Admission to the observation deck atop the 1,700-foot cliff is $3 ($2 under age 12) for a jaw-dropping view.
Black River's Dark Heart People from all over the South Coast converge on the town of Black River, located just a half-hour drive west of Treasure Beach, to sell and shop at a huge open-air market. Once the center of Jamaica's logging industry, Black River has a couple of historic "great houses" that recall the island's days as a British colony-as in the old British saying, "Rich as a Jamaican planter."
The waterway of Black River and its associated 125-square-mile swamp are natural wonders comparable to the Louisiana bayous or the Everglades. The Morass is home to more than 100 species of birds, mahogany and logwood forests, mangrove swamps-and Jamaica's greatest concentration of American saltwater crocodiles. To sneak up on the leathery behemoths dozing in the sun, take a cruise with wetlands biologist Lloyd Linton. His Irie Safari (12 High St., 876/965-2211, 876/384-7673) offers 90-minute tours on pontoon boats for $20 per person ($15 each for three or more). It's worth the splurge.
Before you explore the pristine upper reaches of the river as it penetrates the Jamaican mountains, you might want to drive 20 minutes west to Whitehouse for a light lunch of conch fritters ($7) at Culloden Cafe (Hwy. A2, 876/963-5344), which serves gourmet Caribbean fare in a garden setting overlooking the water.
Back on the main highway, tree-high grasses arch over the four-mile stretch of Bamboo Avenue. Couples sit in the shade selling coconuts, called "jelly coconuts," for less than a dollar each. Jamaicans say that drinking coconut water "washes the heart," but from Lacovia, you can follow the signs to the true Jamaican cure-all at Appleton Estate (876/963-9215), rum makers since 1749. The $12 admission charge ($6 under age 12) includes a tour of the process of turning sugarcane into fine, aged rums, a generous tasting, and a small souvenir bottle of rum, which should help soften your return home.
As Jamaicans often say, "When you have troubles, don't cry--remember rum is standing by."